Hopes faded of finding more than three dozen people still alive after they were trapped in a huge fire that broke out in a mall packed with Christmas shoppers in the southern Philippines, rescuers, firefighters and officials said Sunday.
One cadaver had been recovered from the inferno at the New City Commercial Complex (NCCC) mall in Davao City, but 37 other people remained missing as firefighters were still trying to put out the blaze, which began a day earlier, Mayor Sara Duterte said. Many of the missing were believed to be employees of a business outsourcing firm whose offices were located inside the mall.
“Do not stop until you find the 37,” people, Duterte said she had told the firefighters, adding that victims’ families were “being aided by the local government.” She described the fire as an “unfortunate incident.”
The mayor, who is the daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, advised the public to avoid speculating about the fire’s cause, which had yet to be determined, according to officials. The flames engulfed the mall amid a security alert over potential threats by Islamic State- inspired militants to target crowded public places to avenge their recent defeat in the southern city of Marawi during a five-month battle with the Philippine military.
The mayor’s brother, Paolo Duterte, who is vice mayor of Davao, had said earlier that firefighters had declared that the survival chances of the missing people trapped inside the burning building were at “zero.”
The fire was believed to have originated near a furniture section at midmorning Saturday, and 24 hours later, on Christmas Eve, firemen had not yet put out the blaze.
“Our firemen are still struggling to find a way in as the fire is still burning,” Paolo Duterte said Sunday.
As firefighters were battling the inferno at the mall, city officials and emergency relief workers were busy responding to victims of flash floods in other parts of Davao. The flooding was caused by heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Tembin, which left some 200 people dead as it battered the surrounding southern island of Mindanao, according to reports on Sunday.
One mall official had earlier assured Duterte that the fire was under control.
Thea Septaan Padua, a spokesperson for the NCCC mall, said the fire started on the third floor of the mall. The situation was “under control,” she said, adding that the extent of the damage had yet to be assessed.
“We are currently coordinating with the authorities. However, there are no reported casualties,” Padua said hours after the fire started.
President Duterte, the city’s former mayor whose residence is near the mall, visited the site unannounced late on Saturday, and spent time with relatives of the missing people who were waiting at another establishment for word about the fate of their loved ones.
Photos released by the presidential office showed Rodrigo Duterte consoling the relatives. In one photo, the president appeared to be wiping tears.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte had “assured the relatives of the victims that the government would extend help.”
“The Bureau of Fire Protection is currently determining the cause of the fire and the extent of the damage,” Roque said.
The fire so close to the Christmas holiday in the predominantly Catholic Philippines came nearly seven months after a gunman, believed to be a heavy gambler who was down on his luck, walked into a Manila casino, fired an assault rifle and torched the place, killing 36 people.
While the government discounted any terror links in that fire, authorities remained on heightened alert in urban areas.
Officials in Davao were bracing for the possibility that Islamic militants could carry out a Christmastime bombing or other attack.
In September 2016, radical militants who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State bombed a night market in Davao, killing 15 people, also as President Duterte was visiting his hometown.